Today, the content of a movie or a TV show is only half the story. Did you go to the theater, was it in IMAX, was it in 3D, did you catch it on TV, was it on-demand, did you DVR it, was it live, was it on Netflix, was it on Hulu, did you get it from Redbox, did you go to a video store (where did you find a video store), did you stream it “illegally.” did you torrent it, did you watch it on your tablet, did you watch it on your phone, did you really watch it or did you leave it on while you checked Twitter? We’re inundated with content, and yet it’s not really the case that we’re consuming a million different things, but rather that we’re consuming a lot of the same things in a million different ways. As technological possibilities rapidly increase, so too do the opportunities for providers to push and commoditize their products.
What does this mean for the future of distribution? A common prediction is the rise of streaming VOD services and decline of cable TV subscriptions, to an end that will see even broadcast networks marginalized and potentially made obsolete (though 9 of the top 10 telecasts of 2013 were live sports, to which Netflix and its brethren have no current answer.) A major turning point in the rise of cable came when stations had curated legitimate fanbases for their content, and were able to flip the previous business model and force distributors to pay them for the rights to broadcast their network. With the success of VOD original programming, perhaps we are on the verge of a similar shift. In the meantime, providers of all varieties are tripping over one another, attempting to win your “moment of truth” (for real?).
It’s at this juncture that we find the release of Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart. Many will already be familiar with the 1985 play of the same name, written by Larry Kramer, who adapted the screenplay for this iteration himself. The story recounts the early, terrifyingly cryptic days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, centered upon the activism and personal struggles of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo). As to be expected, the subject matter is difficult, unnerving, and for those without a strong background on the events of that era, may serve to be truly eye-opening. It’s the kind of visceral, emotionally traumatic experience that just doesn’t have the same impact when it’s described second-hand. And today it doesn’t have to be.
The Normal Heart premiered on HBO on a Sunday night in the middle of Memorial Day weekend. It’s viewership, though, was doubled by a Lifetime original movie the next day. This is a flagship production, directed by one of the (for better or for worse) most prominent names in television, and featuring an A-list cast with at least one more megastar serving as a producer. So why would HBO let the project loose with such a whimper? Because the premiere is no longer important. Must-see, water cooler, event TV is not dead, but it has become optional. And for a film like this, that’s a good thing. Through VOD, the personal story will still reach any and all who are interested in it, and they will be free to digest it at their own pace and in their own way. People ages 30 and below, born after the 1985 debut of the play, will no doubt have a completely different experience with the work than those who were alive for the events it depicts. And because the movie lacks a singular, mandatory viewing method, that stratification is mirrored by the medium and made obvious. The “it’s here when you’re ready for it” model is the perfect release strategy for a film of this nature, and may serve as a model for similar pieces in the future.
One of the central plot-points of The Normal Heart is that Ned Weeks and his organization have all the evidence imaginable of a deadly plague in New York, but he can’t get anyone to listen even while screaming his guts out. It’s an agonizing reminder of the ugly, cowardly nature of prejudice, and parallels to national and global movements of today are apparent. The difference now, though, are the massive advances in communication. The movie doesn’t need to be as caustic as its protagonist. It doesn’t need a vouch. Those things help, but with the right credentials, all it needs to do is exist. There’s no competition for your “moment of truth,” because the focus is on the work. And for a story that gives a voice to underrepresented groups and a lesser-known segment of 20th century American history, it’s a valuable tack.